Airport overhaul

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on January 14, 2007.

The end of 2001 was a bad time for airports. The combination of economic downturn and travelers fearful in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks kept planes empty and airport revenue down.

In Jacksonville, that drop off came shortly before another momentous change: In October of that year, the airport system became an independent organization, splitting off from the Jacksonville Port Authority.

As John Clark shifted from vice president of the combined authority to executive director of the new Jacksonville Aviation Authority, his vision of his mission was shaped by the downward spiral in revenue and passenger numbers that afflicted Jacksonville International Airport. His job, he said, is to be ready for the next such downturn, to ensure the airport continues to grow no matter what.

"Shame on us, if we don't prepare," he says now, explaining that he envisions an airport that is "financially self-sufficient," that could still expand even without state or federal funds.

Those preparations spawned are now being put into place as the aviation authority moves into the second year of a five-year plan Clark laid down in 2005 - and they're changing the authority in ways that have some employees running scared.

Tightening the screws

The goal, Clark said: More revenue and more efficiency, which will require expanded job responsibilities and more reliance on outsourced labor.

The changes began last year when Clark cut his management staff in half, jettisoning three of the Aviation Authority's senior managers, including the chief operating officer and chief administrative officer, a move the authority says will save around $599,000 a year in salary and benefits. This year, Clark said, his focus will move to rank-and-file workers, affecting everyone from receptionists and secretaries to the unionized police force and maintenance department.

As the organization pushes to achieve its goals, Clark said, duties will change and some jobs will be done away with.

It's a shift in culture, the executive director acknowledged, one that has already generated pushback.

"I keep asking the question, what makes government different than private companies," he said. His answer: "A mentality of entitlement."

"People have been here so long, they think they're entitled to x. I'm in an industry that's saying 'that's not the case.'"

To combat that mentality, he said, the authority is considering outsourcing more labor, hiring contractors to do a variety of jobs at the four airports in the system, including Jacksonville International Airport. Clark stresses that he has not yet decided exactly which jobs he thinks could be more efficiently done by outsiders, but mentioned human resources, maintenance and police as areas under review.

'Very concerned'

Those suggestions have received an angry response from those who work at the authority, as well as outsiders.

"I don't see outsourcing at this time," said City Council member Glorious Johnson, the council's liaison with the aviation authority and a long-time supporter of Clark. "What I do see is working with the people who are already there."

The authority has tried outsourcing in the past, she said, and was left with dirty bathrooms and messy concourses when the custodial company that was hired didn't meet expectations. "Are you going to get people to do what [custodial] people are doing now?" Johnson asked. "They did that three years ago and it failed. Employees had to come in and fix what the outsourced workers messed up."

Even more upset are the current employees, particularly those in the two unions, both of which are in the midst of a fractious contract negotiations with the authority over issues ranging from performance bonuses and vacation time. The workers have been without a contract since October.

Some police officers, for example, are spooked because private security officers are being trained respond to some calls, a change the officers say would do away with part of their job. (To be certified by the Federal Aviation Authority, an airport has to have some sworn officers with arresting authority, but the federal government does not say how many.)

"We're very concerned," said Donald Green, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 85, which represents the officers and recently won the first grievance case it filed against the authority. "Any time they start bringing in security guards to answer calls that have been answered by police for 30 years, we're concerned."

Those fears are echoed by the maintenance union, whose tradesmen skills, such as electricians, Clark said, "are out there in the marketplace."

"Our workers aren't that easy to replace," said Marcus Rau, president of the Florida Council of Industrial and Public Employees UBC 2081, which represents about 100 skilled maintenance workers. "They're trained in speciality fields. It's a completely different system out here."

Until he actually decides which jobs can be outsourced, it has not been decided what would happen to the employees now in those jobs, said Clark, who said he has taken a more hands-on approach to running the authority since dismissing the three managers last year.

For now, the changes in the organization are shown in smaller ways, like the dismissal of the security guard who used to screen visitors to JAA headquarters and the transfer of several administrative assistants to other posts.

When jobs are outsourced, Clark said, those of the nearly 230 employees now working for the authority who are affected will perhaps be trained for different jobs.

"I believe we have a great work force," he said. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent will be able to adjust."

For those who can't, he said, "it's their choice."

"My suspicion," he said, "is it will be a lot worse before it gets better."


Contract negotiations still stalled

The Jacksonville Aviation Authority is in the midst of a contentious contract negotiation with its unionized workers, including the 100 maintenance workers and about 30 police officers. At issue are things like how bonuses will be calculated, caps on raises and guarantees of short-term disability pay.

Both of the unions have reached an impasse in the negotiations, which began mid-2006, leaving the workers without a contract since October. The next step will be for both sides to go to a special magistrate - but the step after that is less clear.

According to state law, if public employees and their employees can't reach an agreement, the organization's "legislative body" can impose a contract. It's unclear, however, who that legislative body is, with the employees saying it should be City Council and the authority saying it would be the authority board. The unions have filed a lawsuit in County Court to force an answer.

Number of passengers through Jacksonville International Airport on an annual basis

2001: 5,084,994

2002: 4,952,891

2003: 4,883,329

2004: 4,949,115

2005: 5,741,652

2006: 5,439,917*

* Numbers are through November


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

Other Clips